Adapting Holmes is far from Elementary


Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective in the world, was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and appeared in the Strand Magazine from 1887 onwards, with the adventures later published as novels and collections of short stories.

Dramatisation of the narratives began in 1899, when William Gillette became the first actor to portray the Great Detective on stage. Many others have done so since, both on stage and screen. In the 1940s, Basil Rathbone (pictured) became one of the most recognisable, although his Holmes was sometimes to be found thwarting Nazis and visiting Canada. More recently, the Granada TV series starring Jeremy Brett did a fine job of recreating the atmosphere of Victorian London, even if it lost its way in the latter episodes.

Holmes is no stranger to radio, either. Clive Merrison portrayed the famous sleuth in the medium, in a brave attempt to dramatize every story. However, this, too, moved from straight adaptation to creative nonsense (‘Don’t confuse me with that chap in The Strand magazine’, says Watson at one point). Other actors who have taken on the role with high hopes but mixed success are Peter Cushing, Tom Baker and Rupert Everett.

And then along came Benedict Cumberbatch (with mention of his name accompanied by the screams of a million females). This new incarnation, known merely as Sherlock, is clearly the work of fans. I watched the first series with interest and thought the way A Study in Scarlet was updated was enjoyable enough. The Hound of the Baskervilles, however, became a tale of a secret military research base and since then most of the plots have been twisted beyond all recognition. I suspect, though, that the popularity of the television series will make more people read the stories, so I don’t complain too much.

Interestingly, I now see that the episode of Sherlock due to be broadcast this Christmas is set once again in the past, perhaps proving the point that Holmes is at his best when solving crime by gaslight in the fog-filled streets of the nineteenth century… or even better, between the pages of a book, inspiring your own view, in your own imagination.

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I have been working for Oxford Open Learning since 2010 and love helping my students with their English and History courses. As a teacher and personal tutor, I have taught pupils from all around the world, aged from three to adult. I am often to be found with my head in a book and sometimes I have four or five on the go at the same time. I love learning about History and Art and am passionate about literature.

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